Iran begins to fuel its first nuclear power station - but what happens next? Photo: IIPA via Getty Images
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John Simpson: The Iran deal won’t make the world much safer

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran.

After the Vienna agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced, Valiasr Avenue, the long, snaking road that brings traffic southwards and downhill from the middle-class suburbs of northern Tehran to the city centre, was blocked until 2am. Excited, relieved and optimistic, people piled into their cars and headed out to celebrate, hooting their horns, singing and chanting. For Barack Obama and the western leaders, the agreement seems to offer a new start after 36 confrontational years. But for millions of middle-class people in northern Tehran, it promises something even more enticing: the chance to weaken the control that the religious conservatives have maintained over everyday life since 1979.

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran, one of the world’s least-reported-on major countries. The problem is that we think we know what the Islamic Republic is all about. We see the pictures of black-robed demonstrators in the streets denouncing the west and all its works. We recall the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his unshaven face and simian eyes, and think that he speaks for an entire nation of extremists. We assume, therefore, that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended to wipe out Israel and threaten western interests. And, as a result, we get Iran wrong every time.

The reality is that it is a highly complex political society – too complex for its own good – in which, for nearly 40 years, the old conservative revolutionaries have battled against the instinctively pro-western, relatively liberal instincts of a clear majority of its people. Even now, the conservatives manage to keep a grip on society through the structure of the state, which gives the unelected religious leader more authority than the elected president, and through the system of religious policing, which forces everyone to toe the line.

Every time the liberal section of society gets the chance to celebrate a victory over the conservatives, it does so in style – hence the parade of honking vehicles up and down Valiasr Avenue on 14 July. For the people leaning out of the windows and waving pictures of their foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the negotiations to their successful conclusion, the agreement signals an end to sanctions and confrontation with the west. No wonder Iran’s conservatives are nervous about the deal. It probably ensures that the markedly liberal president, Hassan Rowhani, will be re-elected in 2017; and it will make Iranian society more “westoxicated” (an old revolutionary term) and even harder to control.

Will it prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? The agreement doesn’t, on the face of it, seem particularly watertight, so Iran will likely be able to get around it if it wants. Yet there has never been any serious indication that Iran – even the Iran of the conservatives – wants nuclear weapons. What it seeks is the status that generating energy by nuclear means seems to confer; for the most part (and aside from the terrorist attacks it has carried out), Iran has been relatively timid in international affairs.

It is a country with great imperial pretensions and it feels that British and American machinations have historically prevented it from exercising real power in the region. What power it has is exercised through the Shia nexus, linking it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad government in Syria, the Shia parties in Iraq and Shia groups in the Gulf. Iran is not and cannot be an existential threat to Israel but it can be a major diplomatic and military nuisance – hence the bitter condemnation of the Vienna deal by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Hence, too, the fears of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers. The old system, in which the US kept the Middle East under control through military, political and economic links, is just about finished. The ground is shifting under everyone’s feet, so that in their different ways both Saudi Arabia and Israel are now out in the cold and Shia Islam is in the ascendant. A new alliance with Sunni Islam is up for grabs.

In Iran, the big winner after the deal is President Rowhani. He is affable, moderate and calm and has managed to stabilise the country after the violent ups and downs of the Ahmadinejad years. Any reformist leader can rely on roughly two-thirds of the electorate for support but the complexities of the Iranian constitution and the wiles of the politicians have often shackled the reformists’ powers. Now, however, the wave of prosperity that ought to follow the lifting of sanctions should strengthen Rowhani greatly. Will he be able to convert this into new political powers?

For those of us in the west, there are immediate, practical advantages. Iran’s oil will be back on the open market and should drive the price of oil down to $50 or maybe even lower: a big economic benefit. Whatever we may think of Iran, relying on prejudice and the television pictures of angry crowds, the reality is that the country is a sophisticated society that can once again play the pivotal role it did under the shah – though, one hopes, with a bit more common sense.

Is the world safer now? Not particularly, if only because the threat from Iran was mostly exaggerated out of proportion by Israel and the American right. Yet it will be a differently dangerous place. Sanctions, which are an unpleasant and lazy way of exercising power, have proven their effect; so has working with Russia instead of against it. The Vienna agreement will bring nothing good for Isis and it will be easier to co-ordinate a western/Shia campaign against it. The great anxiety now is felt by Saudi Arabia. What does it do and where does it go? After all the years of worrying about Iran, maybe we should start worrying about the Saudis instead? 

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.